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Linda Bearinger

Linda Bearinger

Preventing youth violence

Knowing what contributes to youth violence, U researchers advocate ways to prevent it

By Mark Engebretson

Published on November 15, 2005

A few days before the tragic March 21 school shootings in Red Lake, Minnesota, Linda Bearinger published a study about risk factors that predict youth violence in urban American Indian communities.

Bearinger's findings, from a study of 569 youth ages 9 to 15, included:

"This is stunning," says Bearinger, director of the University's Center for Adolescent Nursing, who also has appointments in the Medical School's Department of Pediatrics and in the School of Public Health. "When you're addressing the issue of disadvantage among American Indians and you combine that with the sense of alienation plus access to guns, I think it starts to explain the Red Lake tragedy."

Bearinger stresses that her research findings can be applied to any community experiencing the same risk factors, not just American Indians. She says the three factors most predictive of whether youth will engage in violent acts are: the experience of being victimized, regular use of alcohol and other drugs, and emotional distress leading to a suicide attempt.

But Bearinger's study also looked at prevention, asking: Can protection offset risk? It's a question Bearinger and her colleague and spouse, Michael Resnick, have posed in other, broader studies of adolescents. The two have collaborated for more than 20 years and their research findings on protective factors have been consistent and positive.

"We're at the point where we can use our findings to advocate on behalf of all young people," Bearinger says.

Resnick, director of the Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center in the Medical School's Department of Pediatrics, says that kids who feel connected to school, believe their parents have high expectations of them, and those who have strong connections to other adults are much less likely to engage in violence.

"These are the protective factors that diminish violence, and also are the factors that diminish the likelihood of emotional distress, disordered eating, and the use of drugs," Resnick says.

Schools are in an ideal position, Bearinger adds, to nurture healthy youth development.

"In situations where young people lack support in other areas in their lives, this connection is critical and an important reason for us to assure that schools have the resources to identify and respond quickly and appropriately to signs of student distress," she says.

But kids need role models, too. Bearinger says that in cases where at-risk children have succeeded, they invariably cite an adult mentor.

"The beauty of all of this research is that we know what works," Resnick says. "Schools, programs, and families need to nurture in young people the kind of protective factors that allow them to grow up to be caring, competent, contributing adults." But obstacles remain. "Funding is one," he says. "It's also ironic that many of these protective measures don't require new funding. What they do require is a shared understanding of what young people need among those who interact with adolescents. And then it requires a shifting of priorities and political will."

The two are optimistic about their efforts to effect change in policy, programs, practice, and families. And they're excited about the University of Minnesota research capacity in adolescent health, which they helped to build.

"This is the best possible environment I know of for doing adolescent health research, teaching, outreach, and advocacy," Resnick says. "President Bruininks has been a champion of moving scholarly work forward into the world of direct application. For him, the priority has always been on children, youth, and families."

Last year, Bearinger's center received a $2.58 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish the Adolescent Health Protection Research Training Program, the only nursing school to receive such funding. It will be used to train 17 pre- and postdoctorate fellows-from the disciplines of medicine, nursing, and public health nutrition-in adolescent health research.

Bearinger says: "We're at the point where we can use our findings to advocate on behalf of all young people."

Originally published in Pictures of Health, fall 2005, a publication of the Academic Health Center.